How We Got Here: The ’70s

By David Frum

It’s no fun writing a bad review. Why then write such a long review of How We Got Here, a silly book on the 1970s by David Frum? Because it is so much fun to read, so engaging, so superficially informed, and . . . so silly.

Like most “culture criticism” – a now ubiquitous label that is so broad it has no meaning – How We Got Here cuts a wide swath through politics, morality, economics and art, chopping everything in its path into bite-sized pieces for quick consumption.

Culture criticism is history lite.

The pace is so quick it often seems as though Frum’s word processor is moving faster than his brain. At one point he mocks the gushy, sentimental love songs of the present day by comparing them to the more tough-minded lyrics of the 1940s. Only twenty pages later, however, he quotes with approval a journalist complaining about the absence of sentimentality in the love songs of the 1970s, especially when compared to the more tender-hearted lyrics of the 40s. In another bit of turnabout, Friedrich Hayek’s 1974 Nobel Prize for economics is said to have been “sullied, but not spoiled” by being shared with Gunnar Myrdal. Yet only ten pages later Frum is quoting Myrdal to describe the growth of the American underclass.

Which Frum are we supposed to believe?

In a nutshell, Frum’s thesis is that the 1970s were a watershed in American life, echoing the economic and technological change that took place in the early part of the century with a social and cultural change that transformed the way we live in real and permanent ways. In contrast, the much ballyhooed counter-culture of the 60s was only a freak show participated in by an unrepresentative fringe. It was only in the ’70s that the attitudes and values of the majority of Americans were radically altered.

The motto of most contemporary conservatism is Edmund Burke’s line about duties being more important than rights. So it’s not surprising that Frum has chapters on both “Rights” and “Duty” in his book. Duty, responsibility, obligation and sacrifice are all identified with American life pre-1970. It was only “sometime after 1969” that ordinary Americans gave up on these values and embraced personal philosophies of selfishness and self-indulgence. In this they were aided by a new emphasis on individual rights that was often opposed to more conventional notions of the common good.

If you look at the argument from a distance and squint a bit it has a certain appeal. There has been a shift toward self-interest as a moral norm throughout the twentieth century which probably has resulted in the diminishment of many worthwhile institutions and the loss of a shared sense of the public good. On the other hand, the growth in cynicism and rebellion has not been without cause. No doubt there was both good and bad in the social and cultural transformations of the 70s. Let’s call it a wash.

Now on to the silly stuff.

Gays are the great enemy in Frum’s tale of disco age moral collapse. Frum does not approve of the gay lifestyle. He quotes at inordinate length from an account of a gay orgy where men writhe in interlocked piles and defecate on each other. He notes with what appears to be some satisfaction the advance of AIDS into a subculture characterized by indiscriminate promiscuity and substance abuse. But most of all he condemns gays for ushering in a new age of sexual license, hedonism, and flagrant vice. “It was gays who manned the ropeline,” he tells us, between a world of decency and the deluge of freedom = pleasure that followed.

Raw prejudice like this is certainly disconcerting, but of even more concern is Frum’s serious misrepresentation of history. How We Got Here is the neo-conservative interpretation of history with a vengeance. And, since it is not really a social history so much as an op-ed piece on social history, there is little need to be exact. There are a lot of examples I could pull out, but two references to the presidency of Ronald Reagan will have to make do.

In one of his many glib and meaningless asides Frum informs us that “None of the eighteen men nominated by either major party for the presidency between 1912 and 1944 was a veteran; in the eleven elections between 1948 and 1988, the winning candidate invariably was.” What this is supposed to signify, I think, is that these stalwart individuals represented the American belief in “Duty,” social responsibility, and the “job well done” that collapsed during Vietnam.

But even that’s a stretch. While it’s true that Ronald Reagan was enlisted during the Second World War, he was stationed in Hollywood where he was attached to a motion picture unit. Papered over in Frum’s commentary is any explanation of what Reagan was a “veteran” of, or how his military experience set him apart from non-veteran presidents.

Even worse is Frum’s explanation of the release of American hostages held in Iran. After the spectacular failure of a military rescue mission, the Carter administration, on the way out anyway and perceived as weak, continued backdoor negotiations to bring the hostages home. Frum takes it from there:

A popular joke asked, “What’s flat and glows in the dark?” The answer: “Iran, twenty-four hours after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.” The Iranians must have heard the joke too. Before the twenty-four hours had elapsed, all the hostages had been released.

What would somebody with no knowledge of the events surrounding the hostage crisis assume from this? That, after the ineffective fumblings of the Carter team it was left to Reagan to face the Iranians down, and force them to submit at the end of a missile?

Unfortunately for Frum, it was the Carter administration that arranged for the release of the hostages. Reagan was installed the day before, but had little if anything to do with the negotiations. Carter may well have been an incompetent president, but even his fiercest critics have had the honesty to give him credit for what he did accomplish. Frum, however, likes the joke better than the fact.

The misrepresentation of history isn’t just stupid, it’s dangerous. Perhaps the most pernicious historical myth of the twentieth century was the German myth of a “stab in the back” in 1918 to explain their collapse at the end of the First World War. According to this myth, which was put to good use by the Nazis, Germany might have continued the war and even prevailed if not for the actions of a group of “November criminals” who betrayed the soldiers at the front by making a shameful peace. The reality, that Germany was exhausted by the war and had reached the end of its rope both on the front and at home, was something no one wanted to admit.

I mention all this because the German myth of the stab in the back is now serving as a paradigm for the conservative reinterpretation of the end of the war in Vietnam. Reinforced by the last installment of the memoirs of Henry Kissinger, conservative commentators have recently begun to suggest that it was the cowardice of Congress that betrayed the Vietnam people by refusing to extend the necessary billions in aid needed to keep their army running, thus “actively throttling” a strategic ally that had proven itself capable of defending its independence without American ground troops. “Identifiable people,” Frum tells us in a threatening tone, “refused South Vietnam the bullets and fuel that might have turned the tide of war.”

This reinterpretation of the war just doesn’t hold up. Yes, the Americans got out of Vietnam with what might be considered undue haste, and bear some responsibility for leading the South Vietnamese to believe they would receive more support than they did. But the war in Vietnam was, by that time, lost. Even Kissinger’s memoirs, as bitter a reflection as they are, seem to concede that it was only a matter of time and honour. And the situation in Cambodia, which is similarly revised in the conservative interpretation of events, was even worse. Suggesting that the cowardly Congressional criminals killed Vietnam by stabbing it in the back is at best a terrible oversimplification, and at worst a totally irresponsible bit of political myth-making. What happened in South-East Asia after the Americans left was disastrous indeed, but by 1974 it was not a disaster that American gold was going to do anything to prevent.

In his discussion of academic trends Frum, following a conservative line that has been worn into a rut, launches another attack upon the fashionable philosophies of relativism – theories of art and morality that stress the essentially subjective nature of reality. But in How We Got Here he only offers support for such theories by constructing a decade that never was, full of people who did not exist and things that didn’t happen. The more disturbing trend, and the one Frum should have looked at, is the trend in book publishing that has seen rigorous thought and historical analysis increasingly replaced by the lightweight opinionizing and sound-bite style commentary of culture critics. That would be a book he would be eminently qualified to write.

Review first published June 3, 2000. This book is full of special moments. Another favourite bit of surrealism comes when Frum tries to defend Richard Nixon from some of his fiercest critics. He derides, for example, George McGovern’s characterization of Nixon as being like Hitler, calling such attacks “hysterical” and “extreme.” And Ralph Nader, it is said, “lost his composure altogether” when he described Nixon as a “tyrant” intent on undoing the rule of law. Frum’s insouciance is a little much. It was Nixon, after all, who – among other things – ordered agents to break in to Arthur Bremer’s apartment and plant evidence so that it would look like Bremer was working for McGovern when he shot George Wallace. The only reason it didn’t happen was because the FBI got to the apartment first. Like Hitler? At least Hitler could claim that Marinus van der Lubbe really did set the Reichstag fire. Where does Frum think tyranny begins?


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